Hispanic Republicans Tone Down Immigration Talk

Jay Root, Houston Chronicle, February 2, 2011

As a Republican, Rep. Aaron Pena is expected to take a hard line on immigration. But as a Latino who represents a heavily Hispanic district along the U.S.-Mexico border, the South Texas lawyer finds some of the anti-immigrant proposals in the Legislature to be unfair and unnecessarily harsh.

Pena is among a handful of new Latino Republicans in the Texas Legislature, and they are taking a careful walk through the minefield of hot-button immigration and cultural wedge issues that are sure to spark debate, and possibly legal reforms, in the Texas Legislature this year.

Several of them are scheduled to meet as a group Wednesday with Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is helping lead a Latino outreach effort, aides said. Abbott’s eventual advice on the legality of some of the immigration bills could be a key factor in what happens to them in the Legislature.

The Hispanic Republicans don’t all share the same opinion on every bill. But with generally more moderate views on everything from English-only proposals to legislation that would deny birth certificates to illegal immigrants’ children, the lawmakers are challenging the GOP to think in news ways about issues that stir Hispanic passions.

Pena, for example, thinks it’s an awful idea to deny illegal immigrants the right to sue in state court. He said the measure, sponsored by GOP Rep. Leo Berman of Tyler, would invite unwarranted abuse against people, even if they are here illegally.

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But Rep. John Garza of San Antonio, worries that the heated rhetoric surrounding the immigration issue could hurt Republicans like him in 2012. Garza squeaked out a narrow, upset victory in November against a Democrat in a district that is 64 percent Hispanic.

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“In my district, immigration was down on the bottom of the totem pole in terms of issues,” he said. “We need to be inclusive if we want to gain the Hispanic vote.”

Garza is among the lawmakers joining the Hispanic Republican Conference, which Pena chairs. The group, formed last week, plans to take positions on specific immigration bills and other issues if two-thirds of its members agree, Pena said. The group includes six members who identify themselves as Hispanic and three Anglos in districts that are at least 40 percent Hispanic.

Abbott, whose wife is Hispanic, will meet with the conference and swear them in as new members, Pena said. In past legislative sessions, Abbott informed legislators that some of the initiatives aimed at illegal immigrants represented unlawful interference with federal authority.

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While Hispanics have traditionally voted Democratic, Abbott and other Republicans said the election of several new Republican Hispanics–there were none two years ago–shows that the GOP and the growing Hispanic population share conservative values.

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